The last month has brought two high-profile surprise albums in U2’s Songs of Innocence and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. As we all know, there can only be one surprise album champion, so I thought I would go through five rounds of criteria (announcement, distribution, price, reach, and ultimately, the music) to decide who won the September Surprise Shakedown. Two men enter the ring, only one can leave.
Round #1: Announcement
U2: The Irish lads of U2 have long aimed to be the biggest band in the world (and at times have been), so unsurprisingly they used the most anticipated media event of the fall in Apple’s Summit introducing the iPhone 6 and iWatch, to announce their album. They even came out onstage, performed a couple of the new songs, and had an awkward exchange with Apple CEO Tim Cook. During the presentation, they revealed the album would instantly be in your iTunes upon the announcement, even if it didn’t set up that nicely. It was a big announcement, but a bit botched.
Thom Yorke: On a slow-news Friday, Thom Yorke announced in letter co-authored with long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich that he was experimenting with a new form that would bypass the normal gates of distribution and was experimenting with a way that put the power in the creators’ hands. This was much more low-key, but much more intimate towards fans.
Winner: Thom Yorke
Round #2: Distribution
U2: Using the biggest online music store to distribute a free album certainly sounds like a good idea on the surface, but Apple and U2 couldn’t have botched it worse. U2 would have been looked upon honorably if Apple would have just left Songs of Innocence in the iTunes store to be searched for and downloaded. Instead, Apple persisted the music onto every iTunes library and cloud connected Apple device, causing the album to feel more spam than a nice gift on the house.
Thom Yorke: Quite opposite of iTunes, Yorke used BitTorrent, a program notorious for illegally shared and pirated music, for his form of distribution. This definitely has to help his indie cred with such a subversive approach.
Winner: Thom Yorke
Round #3: Price
U2: It’s hard to argue with free, but it does seem to take away from the charitable aspect of it when you realize Apple reportedly paid U2 $100 million for the rights to distribute it for free. Regardless of what the band was paid though, free is a clear advantage to the listener.
Thom Yorke: Yorke sold Tomororow’s Modern Boxes for a very reasonable $6, on again a download software notorious for free and illegal music. This is an interesting and no doubt surprising approach.
Round #4: Reach
U2: Through its spammy approach, U2 did reach over half a billion iTunes customers, which is truly mind-blowing. And even though all we are hearing about is the kids who are trying to do whatever they can to remove the stale-old Dad rock from their iPhones, there were clearly tons of people for whom Songs of Innocence was their first experience with U2, they loved it, and wanted more. In fact, 26 of U2 albums (including various greatest hits collections) made the iTunes top #100, which is unprecedented that they owned more than a quarter of the top 100.
Thom Yorke: The biggest downfall of Yorke’s approach is how BitTorrent isn’t owned by half a billion people like iTunes, although there is still close to 150 million users. The average layperson probably doesn’t know what BitTorrent is, but that’s not really who Yorke is targeting his music towards. I would guess that the majority of Yorke’s fans know and use BitTorrent often, so I think he is reaching exactly who he wants to.
The Main Event: The Music
U2: When it comes down to it, you have to believe Apple didn’t listen to Songs of Innocence before offering U2 $100 million because it’s about as mediocre as U2 has been in quite some time. It’s the sound of U2 recycled through modern rock music and then mimicked by U2. Basically U2 replicating U2 Wannabes. On my favorite podcast of the moment, the hilarious U Talkin’ U2 to Me, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott actually gushed over the new album for two hours, which shocked me since it was the first truly positive thing I have heard about the album. Regardless of what Scott and Scott think though, beyond Lykke Li’s guest spot on “Troubles”, this is an instantly forgettable album.
Thom Yorke: This is the most definitive winner, as Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is miles better than Songs of Innocence. It’s tender, dense, and mesmerizing from start to finish. While it falls slightly short of The Eraser (which I love), it instantly deserves to be in end of year consideration.
Winner: Thom Yorke
Surprise Shakedown Winner: Thom Yorke